Bus driver shortage plagues districts across nation

On the morning of Sept. 9, Springdale School District’s director of transportation Kevin Conkin received a phone call revealing that approximately 400 students with no transportation to school. He and the transportation office staff were near tears. 

A severe bus driver shortage, according to Conkin, has burdened school districts across the nation for the past five years, but the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the shortage into a crisis situation. 

“We never want to cancel routes,” Conkin said. “We never want to do that. Right now we’re working 12 to 14 hours a day to get kids to and from school.” 

The half-decade long shortage has been tremendously worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Conkin. 

“Forty percent of our drivers are over the age of 65, and 75% of those drivers are medically at risk according to the CDC,” Conkin said. “These are folks that really need to be careful in the pandemic. Often, they just don’t want to risk it, and I understand that and I respect that.”

Conkin and the district have taken many steps in recruiting and accommodating drivers.
“The district has increased their salaries,” Conkin said. “They also lessened the days on their contract, which is huge.”

The district, according to Conkin, has also been paying parents and grandparents to drive children to school. 

“We pay parents to bring students to school because sometimes it can be an economic crisis as well,” Conkin said. 

Additionally, a new system which Conkin calls the “tier system” has been implemented this year. This means a driver will have three routes including an elementary, middle, and high school route. 

“We went to the tier process this year because of the shortage of drivers,” Conkin said, “Then, as the year progressed, we didn’t have enough drivers to fill slots of those that were sick.”

Conkin attributes this shortage of drivers to a fear of the responsibility that comes with driving a school bus. Bus driver Rob Ariola agrees that keeping students safe on the way to and from school is a serious task. 

“I consider myself an ambassador to the kids through the parents,” Ariola said. “I’m a parent and a grandparent, and I would expect a school bus driver to consider my kids safety as a priority, and that they would protect my kid from being harassed or harmed in any way.” 

Bus driver Richard Reishus feels that the mutual trust between him, the parents, and the students has created a sense of family between them. 

“The parents come out to bring their children to the bus and they all want to see who’s driving it,” Reishus said. “They want to see if he’s happy, if he enjoys their children stepping up onto the bus, and they want to wave to you. These children and parents become your personal family, even though they’re not your blood and kin.”

Reishus chooses to drive a school bus because he truly enjoys the students, and driving keeps him busy. 

“I had to have something to get up for in the morning,” Reishus said. “I never thought that I would enjoy picking up students and hauling them around as much as I do. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.” 

Ariola believes that the secret to living a long life is staying busy. He feels that driving a bus is a great way to stay busy after retiring, and most drivers end up enjoying the students. Reishus believes that bus driving has a direct effect on the students and their education. 

“If you like children, and if you want to see them grow and nurture them,” Reishus said, “driving school buses is a very rewarding job. You feel like you’re helping mold the future.”

Sophomore Joshua Roman is one of these students. His bus has been cancelled over 15 times since the school year began. According to Roman, he and his parents are not informed of his bus cancellation until near the end of each school day.

“I have to call my mom and it’s just a bother for her because she’s busy,” Roman said, “but there’s no other way to get home.” 

Roman’s schedule is entirely thrown off when his bus is cancelled, and he is overall annoyed with the entire situation. 

“I like talking to my friends while waiting for the bus,” Roman said. “It always is a bit annoying that I just have to go home.” 

According to assistant Principal Dr. Curtis Gladden the shortage is not only putting a strain on the parents and students, but it is also affecting the teachers. 

“It has put a strain on the teachers because sometimes they have to do extra work to help students that aren’t there,” Gladden said. “It’s a challenge all the way around.”

The situation on Sept. 9 has become a daily problem for those who ride buses, those who drive buses, and for those parents who have to find alternative means of getting their students to school. According to Ariola, approximately 200 extra cars are added to the traffic in and around school parking lots. 

“I have a Monitor Elementary route and we’re short two buses right now,” Ariola said. “You can’t hardly get in. The traffic’s just blocked up.” 

Although Conkin works in the transportation office as the director of transportation, he also drives a bus himself. 

“I actually myself drive a bus to your building at Har-Ber,” Conkin said. “I drive bus 154, and I transport probably 64 students there. I’m going to continue driving that bus.” 

Conkin and the transportation department want to cry out to the public about their need for drivers. 

“Whether you’re a coach, teacher, parent, aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa; we need help,” Conkin said. “We’re totally transparent. I cannot get kids to school without transportation, and I cannot build that bridge without laborers. I have all the materials to bridge that gap between the students and their education, but I don’t have enough workers.” 

Instructions on how to become a bus driver and get a Commercial Driver’s License can be found at https://www.sdale.org/page/transportation-drive. Ariola encourages the same as Conkin. 

“Anybody can do it,” Ariola said. “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life because I love it.”